Malta’s Fault-lines Of Love
It is 10am, and I am sitting on the balcony of Crust in St Julian’s – a bakery made for visitors, offering Full English Breakfast including Lincolnshire sausage, as well as three types of fresh croissant.
There is much to lament here, in the epicentre of Malta’s industrial tourism complex. The oppressive clacking of carry-on rolling luggage over cobble; the greedy high-rise balconies that boast sea views and render the view from the sea a visual crime; the tyranny of TripAdvisor-friendly services which perfect the art of being average.
All of this is true. But a good croissant is a good croissant.
The choking pulse of Malta in the daytime goes on about me. This tiny island, rising above sea level on the shallow bridge between Europe and Africa, is composed of tight streets, compact housing and incongruously polite driving.
Although we are at the very heart of the Mediterranean (Malta is the conceptual ground zero of the mariner’s traditional wind map), it is as if Maltese road manners have been plucked from a 1950s quintessential English village.
‘After you Mrs. Muscat. I insist. After you.’
It is the hour of deliveries, and vans are strewn about the streets and footpaths, with young muscled men pushing stashes of fresh linen on two-wheeled dollies, carrying crates of Kinnie (Malta’s exquisite non-alcoholic answer to any mineral you care to mention) to the local bars including Crust, and shepherding trays of donuts, gaily coloured in pinks, yellows and chestnut browns, to The Donut Factory, which sits just beside me.
Malta is a busy hive, full of busy bees.
Drawn by the EU’s lowest unemployment (3.8%), a slew of Sicilians have taken the quick ferry-ride to work alongside the Maltese. They are abetted by a taut immigration and refugee situation that engenders a veiled language of discontent.
The people of Malta push ever onward. Foreigners have always colonised their island. It is what it is.
Their government, daily accused of a sunny version of our shady ‘brown paper bag’ Irish corruption, has made a short-term bet. Keep the economy pulsing, keep the pay-packets jingling, and all will be well.
The hive hums, simmers, and hums again.
St Julian’s, where I sit and am staying, is a kind of invented Eurotrash extension of the more authentic and charismatic Sliema, to its east. I do not beat myself up regarding my hotel choice, which has landed me on the Vegas strip of Malta. Every first trip to a place is reconnaissance mission of sorts. The traveller’s job is to figure out how he can fall in love with his new destination. Even Athlone has its charms.
I lived in a run-down part of Leytonstone in London’s East End for a short period in the 1990s. It had its share of grime and pound shops. My rented room was above a Cab Office. For a period I was inclined not to leave the house.
With time, however, I found my Leytonstone community at the local gym, which ended up making me the fittest I’ve ever been. The welcome, non-judgment and positive energy of my daily pump classes, run mostly by and for British-Caribbean women who had recently given birth, was so memorable. The sound track that blasted out as we mastered those weights lives with me to this day.
Yesterday, my first alone after my friend Jim headed home, was spent walking the inner roads of Sliema, where the architecture is noble and the roadways calm. Rows of neatly parked compact cars lined the streets. Each vehicle bore a thick coat of mustard coloured dry dust from the rains of a few nights back.
This is the gift of the Sirocco, the strong southerly wind that blows up from the Sahara. I am transported by the romance of it all. I see in the exotic dust a metaphor for Malta’s connectedness with the great continent to the south. Being on the fault line gives me a frisson of connection.
Alone on the street in the afternoon heat, a parked car’s windscreen stares out at me. Inscribed, with an index finger, into the dried dust of the Sirocco are five words: GO BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY.
I take this as a message to the peoples of Africa who have recently landed on the island, wrapped up in a reference to that continent’s ochre sands. A smiley face accompanies the legend, as if to sugar-coat its meaning, spelt in bold.
The sentiment is not new to me, as I have spent the evening previous with a Tunisian man in his thirties, himself soon to be resident in Malta. Educated, sophisticated and complicated, he spoke rather harshly of his Maltese hosts. How he encounters a gruffness in their manner; he interprets a sort of snobbish desire to be British in them, whilst believing they have way more in common with Tunis.
I do not push the obvious response to his complaint – how it is Malta that has invited him in, and given him opportunity to grow and prosper.
I find my liberal ‘let’s all be friends in love’ approach tests poorly in the real world.
It is a struggle to have a good life, and to make good honey. Bees of all hues know it is so.
Jim and I had spent a fascinating day with an academic feminist who gave us a tour of Valletta and The Three Cities, on the other side of Valletta’s Grand Port.
We were eight hours in her company, chewing the fat, discussing our views of the world and our impressions of Malta, and in-between hearing her recount the core narrative of how this rocky island, anointed by its strategic location, has changed hands and dreams over the centuries.
Christine’s own academic work lies in the lives and roles of Maltese women. Her undergraduate thesis looked at the proliferation of women’s hairdressers in her home village, to the island’s sparse north. She found that this was an expression of women’s need for connection; their focused interest in hair-colouring an expression of a desire to simply be noticed.
It is a narrative of many rural communities, and not just a gendered one. We told her of our diminishing network of pubs in rural Ireland, which have become the flotsam of a society which takes refuge more in silent black screens than in colourful chattering banter.
In Valletta, a tiny fortress capital which doubles as a giant of European history, we walk limestone streets and discuss how the vagrant Knights of Jerusalem and Rhodes wound up here, in Malta.
They were refugees, essentially, and ended up becoming Christian Europe’s first defence from the onslaught of the expanding Ottomans. The Siege Of Malta (1565) was their military expression of ‘bearing their cross’ – the challenge of every man and woman faced in their lifetime to cleanse them of their human iniquity.
Christine was helpful in reminding us of the value set which informed the choices made in the 16th century. Morality is a cultural construct, subject to the winds of change.
Funding to build Valletta’s powerful and impenetrable defences poured in from all the Christian crowns of Europe. In supporting the Knights of Malta, they were defending their own interests.
The religious Knights created, in Valletta, a city of chaste men. This was the theory, at least.
Of course, prostitution flourished. Eager to champion Christian values as well as to satisfy their carnal desires, the Knights created a Magdalen Nunnery. The Nunnery invited prostitutes to give up their trade, and follow a life of prayer within its walls.
I expect they carefully followed the Nunnery’s fortunes in recruiting repentant prostitutes. Too much success would be a resounding failure.
Finishing up my languid breakfast at Crust, I order a bottle of Kinnie on impulse. What is this vaguely medicinal soft drink that so triumphs in Malta? It has survived the onslaught of Coke and the imperialism of Pepsi. Not everyone loves it, my waiter tells me, but it wins out nonetheless.
I take a sip, quietly interrogating its palate.
Yes. There it is. Refreshing. Bittersweet. Enduring.